The Changeling is the first in a projected six-book series, The Changeling Saga. The whole sequence is a fantasy and contains many features common to other such works conceived on an epic scale. There is a setting which is an alternative universe which can be interpreted in the light of our own world. The story can embody a quest with a specific purpose, an enemy cast in the form of an extreme evil, and implications of a larger, more abstract struggle between good and evil which mean the narrative can be read as an extended metaphor. The agency carrying out the quest may consist of one or more people marked out as special, though usually they will not be aware of it. These characters are tested to decide if they are worthy of the responsibility they are given. Humans are often mixed with monsters, supernatural beings or mythical creatures which can nevertheless display human characteristics. The stories commonly end with huge climactic battles which restore the old dependable values and supplant the new, usurping values, which are almost invariably evil. Thus the genre is essentially conservative. As the genre of serious fantasy directly descends from epics of folk tradition and religious metaphor, there is a sense of timelessness and a universality which seems inherent in human consciousness. These features bind together works such as the Odyssey, Beowulf, Paradise Lost and The Maharabhata and, nearer our own day, Lord of the Rings, The Worm Ouroborous and, though he has denied it to be fantasy, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
This is a big league to aspire to but The Changeling Saga certainly means to try. Yes, the main setting is an alternative universe, though the story starts in a world which is recognisably our own. Yes, there is a quest, and it is given to Peter Badger, a boy who, when he enters the alternative world, finds he has the power of shapeshifting. His situation in our world is grim. His father disappeared five years before. His mother is persecuted by villainous relatives: Peter’s uncles, Ramsey and Lorenzo, and Aunt Petra hold her in their financial grip. But Peter has a grandfather and a mysterious, magical Book. Both are instrumental in sending him into another world, where he finds that there is an animal nature inside him. He shares his body with a badger, and he has the power to change into it. His quest, at least initially, is to find and rescue his father, if in fact he is still alive. Peter is not alone. He meets Paul Otter and Michelle Hawk, both with the same shapeshifting power. The world he enters bears odd correspondences with his own. He finds himself with people with whom he soon identifies, especially Ebo and Jasmine. Though their Shaman looks out for their wellbeing, they are oppressed by the entirely evil Rumanni in Castle Craven, under the Lord Romulus, and it is in Castle Craven that the main action is developed. So here is the good/evil struggle, which is plainly to move to a wider stage as the books progress. And here also is the religious extended metaphor: this story has echoes of Hindu myth deep in its weft and warp.
Lathar handles his large cast of characters well. Peter, Paul and Michelle work well together, though their sense of co-operation is realistically trammelled by their animal natures. The full nature of the appalling Castle Craven and its bestial garrison’s appropriately craven fear of Romulus and their other masters is memorably vivid. The version of evil shown here is unthinking, extreme, motivated by sadism and fear. The story is action-packed: the writing is often of great power and energy, though interspersed with some cluttered sentence construction. Especially impressive are the accounts of Peter’s various metamorphoses between boy and badger. The ending is satisfying but leaves us with big questions still to be answered and the second book promises a broadening of the action.
So will this sequence of novels come anywhere near the big league mentioned above? Well, how should I know? But I can say that this is a pretty impressive start and, for the reader, well worth following through. It has been high on Amazon fantasy rankings already, which suggests the force is with it, as the reader hopes it is with Peter.
Reviewed by Dennis Hamley
The Changeling is available in Kindle format here